RCEP: Maximize the wins, minimize the losses

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When it comes to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which will be deliberated again soon by the Senate, we must maximize the wins and minimize the losses.

If it is shown convincingly that the advantages to the industry and service sectors outweigh the disadvantages to the agriculture sector, we could then ratify RCEP.

Recently, some have claimed in the media that the fears of the agriculture sector regarding RCEP are without basis. They question the 83 organizations and 21 leaders who signed in May a letter addressed to the Senate expressing their objection to the immediate RCEP ratification.

It must be noted that the groups, in stating their objections, used as basis the study of respected Dr. Rashmi Banga of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. She believes that with RCEP, the Philippines will see an increase in imports, a decrease in exports and a net loss in terms of government revenues.

Another study using UN data showed that “developed countries like Japan and New Zealand protect 21 percent and 28 percent of their pre–RCEP imports by value under their (sensitive lids) and (tariff rate quotas), while Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) has protected theirs only by an average 19 percent of pre-RCEP imports by value.”

In any trade agreement, there are winners and losers. The winners should also consider and help the losers.

Here is the official AgriFisheries Alliance position on RCEP: “Considering only agriculture, RCEP has more disadvantages than advantages. However, if it is proven that the benefits to the industry and services sectors outweigh the disadvantages to agriculture, RCEP should be ratified.

But to minimize the damage to our agriculture sector, the following three [conditions] must first be met:

(1) Since more agriculture imports are expected, strict border controls should be implemented to prevent further damage to agriculture. One is the restoration of an antismuggling oversight body with private sector participation. This helped reduce the smuggling rate by 25 percent and 31 percent during the two times it was operational. This is because it met monthly with the Bureau of Customs and reported directly to the President. The other is to strengthen quarantine and other first border controls to address effectively health and safety standards, which are ironically implemented strictly for our products [and] not for imports.

(2) To ensure that agriculture gets the support it needs to develop and effectively compete with imports, the public-private agriculture budget monitoring committee should likewise be restored. As in the past, the private sector should be given the capability of monitoring the Department of Agriculture (DA) budget use in the provinces. When this was done, the huge P22 billion in unliquidated and questionable expenses [by the DA] reported by the Commission on Audit for 2020 never happened because of transparency. The DA budget must now be used effectively, and not lost to corruption and waste.

(3) The vulnerable sectors exposed to more import threats must be identified, and concrete measures undertaken to address them. Vietnam did this when they entered the World Trade Organization (WTO), [but] we did not. That is largely why WTO benefited their agriculture sector, while we suffered. We must not let this happen again with RCEP.”

The alliance’s core group is led by Arsenio Tanchuling of Alyansa Agrikultura, representing farmers and fisherfolk; Danilo Fausto of the Philippine Chamber of Agriculture and Food, Inc., representing agribusiness; and Emil Javier of the Coalition for Agriculture Modernization in the Philippines, representing science and academe.

The above conditionalities were discussed and unanimously approved by a subcommittee of the public-private Philippine Council for Agriculture and Fisheries as early as March 11. Today, eight months later, practically nothing has been done to address these issues.

We must now maximize the wins and minimize the losses as we address RCEP. This can be done with the help of the industry and service sectors.

The author is Agriwatch chair, former secretary of presidential flagship programs and projects, and former undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Trade and Industry. Contact is [email protected]

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